Wicker bed tray with breakfast dishes. Baskets on both sides with a newspaper in one of them.Whenever we were sick as children, my mother would tidy the “sickroom.” She put fresh sheets on the bed and brought in a few extra pillows so we could sit up comfortably.  She made sure the windows were open (fresh air was key) and we were allowed to use a special tray for our meals which was fitted with a basket on either side. When the dishes were removed, we could dip into the baskets for a favorite book, art materials or a pack of cards. At several points during the day, Mom would come in to tidy the room, remove any debris and, crucially, brush our hair. She always said: “You’ll feel better when your hair is brushed.”

Mom was right. I remember fussing about it a few times, insisting that there was no connection between my terrible sore throat and whether my hair was combed but I always did feel, just as she promised, not only better but much better.

I taught my children the same principle and now they are doing it with their own kids.

Along the same lines, Mom insisted that we make our beds before leaving for school. “Can’t you just close the door?” we’d whine. “Don’t look at my bed.” but Mom was adamant: if the beds weren’t made, she said, she would be uncomfortable all day.

The habit stuck. I did the same thing with my children. They are now incapable of leaving their homes with an unmade bed.

Does it make them better people? I think it helps. The preference for order and tidiness has become a keystone habit: a habit that spills into the rest of one’s life with a cascade of positive changes. Keystone habits may seem inconsequential (how does a tidy bed make me a better teacher, entrepreneur or student?) but they create a series of ripple effects: skills in time management, planning, attention to detail, systems thinking. All of them are crucial for success in any endeavor.

Like, say, a construction project.

Empty corridor at a construction site. Floor is swept and clean

One of the big surprises of visiting our building site is how tidy it is. Passageways are clear for walking through, for example. It may not sound like much until I think about how my kitchen looks when I am cooking. Every countertop is strewn with knives, cutting boards, measuring cups, bowls, whisks and spoons. Yeah, yeah, I’ll clean it all up eventually, but in the heat of battle it’s a BATTLEFIELD. At our building site, it’s clean-as-you-go and there’s a logic to it.

Building materials are large and often messy. They can be hazardous if not stowed properly and while it’s important that things be close at hand for efficiency, if there is ever a question, safety  trumps.

Corridor in a building site with steel rods neatly stowed in an alcove

So rods are carefully tucked away in the alcove, not left strewn around on the floor for someone to trip over. In the distance you can see a collection of long steel pipes neatly stacked on the periphery of the room. I see this all over the site – a little extra thought, a systematic  approach to everything permeates the whole project.

Look at this sweet wheelbarrow, parked nicely in its own little garage – it was the end of the working day when we spotted this and everyone was gone. The worker who had been using it could  just as easily have left it where he’d been working; no one would trip over it now. But the habit of tidiness is strong. Put it where it belongs.

Wheelbarrow, parked carefully against a brickwall

Tidiness goes hand in hand with a meticulous sense of organization, attention to detail and a systems approach.

I love this photo for its depiction of all those things in one crisp frame: Bricks being painstakingly laid in a neat, straight line while a supervisor consults the architect’s drawings. Everyone in the picture is wearing safety gear. Gazab ka!

Workers at a construction site: some laying bricks, one consulting the large sheet plan; all wearing safety gear.

We’ve been constructing our campus for a year now and have logged 111,000 person-hours without a single accident. I’m convinced this is because of our team’s focus on keystone habits: tidiness, order, systems thinking.

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